At least 4 people died and 40 people were injured when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair before a Sugarland concert as part of the State Fair festivities.
As I flip around the three main TV stations (I have forgotten to check out WXIN, Indianapolis’ Fox affiliate), and watch Twitter, I’m amazed by the level of activity I’ve seen on Twitter. I’ve also seen some things happen with social media crisis communications that I never dreamed would happen when I was in that role at the Indiana State Department of Health. Other things I have seen (or not seen) don’t surprise me one bit.
- The main sources of news are the four main news channels here, WTHR (NBC), WISH (CBS), WRTV (ABC), and WXIN (Fox), and the Indianapolis Star (@IndyStar). Several people are retweeting news they see on TV. Nothing is coming from any of the official channels, and TV stations are left to interview witnesses and replay the same cell phone videos over and over. One station looped the same video at least 14 times in 10 minutes.
- Officials have been asking people to update their Facebook pages and send tweets to let loved ones know they’re okay. The cell phone towers were jammed, especially as first responders were also using cell phones, and people weren’t able to call in or out. A friend, Elizabeth, was searching for information on one of her friends, Jenn, and finally received word that she was okay, a la her Facebook page.
- The first response agencies have done or nearly nothing with social media (compared to the London police, which updated people about the status of the riots via Twitter).
- The Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS)* has a Twitter feed, but has not updated it since August 8th. Their Twitter feed reads more like a list of press release announcements.
- Mayor Greg Ballard’s Twitter feed has basic announcements every 30 minutes.
- The Indiana State Police never even mentioned the tragedy, and the Indianapolis Metro Police Department haven’t updated since June 5.
- The Indianapolis Department of Public Safety (@IndianapolisDPS) was providing basic information via their Twitter feed.
- Other than @MayorBallard, there was nothing from official channels.
While I don’t expect these groups to give us a minute-by-minute update via Twitter, if they are involved, they should be communicating with the public, even if it’s to tell people to tune in to local news for more information. If they’re not involved, they should at least refer people to the proper agency.
- The first rule of crisis communication is to “Be first. Be right. Be credible.” The very agencies that people are depending on for this information were not. And now that social media has become more prevalent, the days of depending on emailed press releases written by committees and regularly rescheduled press conferences are way over (a press conference was originally scheduled for midnight, and then rescheduled to 1:30 am. But they could have kept the news media up to date with occasional tweets and quick blog posts).
- I’m struck by the irony of the authorities asking people to use social media to give updates while they barely use it themselves. Hopefully this will convince the first response authorities start to use it themselves.
- When I was in crisis communication, one of our roles was to respond to and squelch rumors and bad information. Not only was there not any of this happening from official sources, like IDHS, Indiana State Police, or even the Indianapolis Police, it was the Twitter users who were correcting information. This represents a major shift from who is the trusted source of news: social media has just shown that it’s the people, not the authorities.
- The crisis communicators responding to crises like these need to start including social media in their own responses. Not only can they get news out to the public, they can respond to rumors and bad information immediately, squelching it, and getting out good information instead.
- The news media would be smart to start streaming their news programs on their websites during emergencies like this. I was communicating with people in Chicago, Alabama, and even Toronto about the incident. All I’ve been able to do is send them to stories on sites, but they could watch this live if the stations would stream their emergency news broadcasts.
- People on Twitter are affecting the news coverage, or at least are being heard. At one point, WTHR had shown the collapse of the stage (via a cell phone video) more than 14 times in 10 minutes. Shawn Plew tweeted this fact, and @WTHRcom responded and said they would mention it to the producers.
- One of the reporters from WISHTV (the CBS affiliate) downloaded different videos from YouTube to his computer, so he could play them on screen with a double-click, rather than worrying about streaming from YouTube itself. He’s using a large screen TV so we can see the videos more easily.
If you’ve ever had any doubt about the need for a smartphone, or the power that citizen journalists wield, know this: all of the footage and images that all the newscasts are showing, and the ones that the national news outlets will be playing over and over, came from people and their smartphones. Not news cameras recording the aftermath of an event, but real action shot by real people who were on the scene.
Most of the information people were getting via Twitter was coming from anyone who was discussing the event, watching it on TV and passing word along, or even listening to the live stream of the scanner traffic online.
Once again, social media has broken the news, and gotten images out before the news broadcasts could. That’s not an indictment of the mainstream news, it’s a testament to the power of social media and citizen journalism. But it should show government agencies and corporations that they can no longer rely on traditional media to break the news or even discuss the story.
*The IDHS coordinates the efforts of the Indiana Police Department, emergency managers, fire departments, and other first responders. They would sometimes be involved in a large-scale event like this, even in an advisory capacity.